Nestorius by guilemo at DeviantArt.com

Nestorius: Insidious Schismatic or Monk Out of His Depth?

The Council of Ephesus marks the point at which I abandoned Early Christianity as an area of focus in favor of Theology and Philosophy of Religion. In a word or, more precisely, a name, the reason for the break was Nestorius. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to mount a defense of the Nestorian heresy or try to wash the stain of delict from Nestorius’ obstinate refusal to capitulate to the Council, BUT… there are aspects to the controversy that have been swept under the rug of history and which always stuck in my craw because, to put it bluntly, the guy got shafted. I’ll try to keep it short. Before being made the Archbishop of Constantinople [and thrust into the center of the political tensions of the Pentarchy], Nestorius was a monk. To put it simply, his preparation might have been spiritually rigorous but the shelter of the monastery did not leave him well equipped to deal with situations he was about to face. Suddenly caught between Christological factions that were fracturing the Christian community in and around Constantinople, he also faced the rise of a women’s movement that had been taking Mary’s title, Theotokos, as grounds for developing a new kind of Goddess-cult around her. So not only did he have to try to unite the major factions (each of which stood on opposing sides regarding the use of Theotokos and its Christological implications), he also had to put down a dangerous and growing new paganism before it got out of control. What remnants we have of his letters at the time [including the fragments cited against him which paint the picture no differently] are fairly clear that his positing of Christotokos as a counter was not a doctrinal move so much as a pastoral one. That he failed is unfortunate [neither of the factions was satisfied with the compromise and the women, who largely ignored the whole thing, eventually just sort of dissipated into the anonymity of history] but certainly not worthy of condemnation. Meanwhile, however, St. Cyril of Alexandria [where he sat as the head of an, at the time, even more powerful member of the Pentarchy] got wind of Nestorius’ work and, ignoring the pastoral issues, fixed on its doctrinal implications and began writing scathing letters both to Nestorius and to Celestine in Rome. Delays in transmission of letters in and out of Constantinople, coupled with the speed of Cyril’s writing, left Nestorius (who was still, let us not forget, fending off annoyed factions and annoying women) trying to explain and defend his position on multiple fronts when Emperor Theodosius II called a Council on the matter that ended up being taken over by, you guessed it, Cyril. Nestorius arrived to find himself without support (sympathizers from Antioch were delayed and Cyril called for a condemnation of Nestorius before they arrived) and promptly asked to be relieved of duty as Archbishop so he could go back to the monastery. Again, I don’t mean to cleanse Nestorius or sully St. Cyril, and I acknowledge that the Christological work of Ephesus on Cyril’s side is a vital chapter in our doctrinal history. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel sorry for Nestorius who, evidence seems to bear out, was mostly just caught out of his depth…

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